We’re back with another edition of Desert Island Cameras, the recurring feature in which we spotlight the best of the best from a given camera brand. And today we’re picking our one-and-done Leicas with a very special guest – it’s Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter fame.
For those not in the know, Bellamy has been one of the foremost experts on Leica and film cameras for a long, long time. Through his camera sourcing service, his writing, and his website, he’s helped countless new and experienced photo geeks learn about and get their hands on their dream cameras. More than this, he’s a class act and a nice guy. So if you’ve never visited his site, read this post and then take a look.
Now down to business. Which Leica would each of us choose if we could each choose only one? Here are our absolute, be-all-end-all, stuck-with-it-for-the-rest-of-our-lives Leica cameras.
So we’ve come to the big question – which Leica is the best Leica? Though any answer will probably incite a riot in the comments, I’ll take a swing. There’s really only one choice for me, and it happens to be my daily shooter. It’s the Leica M2… paired with a Nikkor 5cm F/2 LTM lens.
Before we get to the blasphemy of the latter, let’s focus on the greatness of the former. The Leica M2 is arguably the quintessential Leica. Yes, the M3 began the legend of the M, but if you look closely at every M that came later, each iteration looked and operated more like the M2 than the M3. And for good reason – the M2 introduced an improved finder lighting system, introduced the clean, bezel-free design which remains the hallmark of every subsequent M, and gave us more usable frame lines (35/50/90 compared to the M3’s 50/90/135). There really isn’t much room for improvement; even Leica’s top-of-the-line MP, introduced in 2004, can be described as an M2 with an automatic frame counter and a light meter. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.
Now, the lens. Many would have my head for picking a lowly Japanese LTM lens over Leica’s masterpieces, and to them I say “come at me”. The Nikkor-H.C. 5cm F/2 is one of the finest, most affordable, and most capable rangefinder lenses around. Its build quality stacks up to any offering from Leica, its front element is hard-coated and resistant to scratches (unlike certain vintage Leica lenses), and it focuses as close as a DR Summicron in macro mode (0.45m) for a fraction of the price. Even better, it’s a clone of the legendary Zeiss Sonnar 50mm F/2, which until very recently was never made for M-mount cameras. Beat that, Leica.
The best part about this combo? It won’t break the bank. The M2 is, on average, one of the least expensive Ms, rarely exceeding the $800 barrier, and user-grade M2s with flaky (but easily replaceable) vulcanite can be found for a cool $550, with patience. The Nikkor-H.C. 5cm F/2 is also relatively inexpensive, running right around $250 on eBay at the time of this article’s publication, a mere fraction of what it would cost to buy a standard Leica Summi-whatever.
Given the choice between this kit and even the most expensive all-Leica setup I’d gladly choose this one, every time.
The best Leica is the Sofort. No, I’m kidding. Chill out. The best Leica is actually the Minilux. Ha, got you again. But seriously, the Leica that I’d choose to live with forever is one that, while not quite as polarizing as those other two cameras, is still a bit heretical within the cult of Leica. It’s the Leicaflex SL2, and before you dismiss me entirely, let me explain why.
I cut my teeth on SLRs. When I first attempted photography with a capital P, I began on a Minolta DSLR. I fell in love with the craft, even if I was quite talentless. Almost two decades later and still as lacking in talent as ever, I’ve shot every kind of camera there is. Rangefinders, large format, TLRs, pinhole, box cameras – I’ve dabbled. Oh, how I’ve dabbled. But, as they say, you never forget your first, and even though I’ve been using an M6 every day for the past month, I’ll always choose an SLR over a rangefinder when pressed.
I picked the SL2 because it’s the last truly Leitz-developed classic SLR, and the most advanced of the pre-electronic era. Production of this final iteration of the SL series began in 1974 and lasted just two years, after which it was replaced by the R series, a range of SLRs co-developed (and many would say mostly developed) by Minolta. These cameras are fantastic machines, but the SL2 is just a bit more timeless.
It offers enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, is capable of taking nearly any type of photo, and it looks simply stunning. The SL series’ limited range of lenses makes collecting the entire kit something of a relief (just try buying every lens made for your classic Canon or Nikon – too much). And in a time when virtually every photo geek knows about the M series (and has one hanging around his neck) the Leica SLRs are something of a wonderful change of pace. Its rarity compared to the earlier SL and its improved specification over that machine make it the Holy Grail of Leica SLRs. And if I’m picking one machine for the rest of my life, hey, I may as well pick the best.
Some people might think that due to the nature of my job I would have a really hard time thinking about what my Desert Island Leica would be. There are so many choices and so many new things that it would be an impossible decision. But it is actually quite the opposite.
When I first started working as JapanCameraHunter I had a dream to own all the Leicas, and that I did over time. But right at the beginning I learned a valuable lesson and that was to find the camera you are happy with so that you don’t try to keep them all. So I did. And it was the best decision I ever made.
I have my Desert Island Leica, the Leica MP-6. To me it is perfect and all I need in a Leica camera. I have written in the past about how I think the M6 is the best Leica to own, and it is when you consider all the criteria of value and ease of use. But if you throw a few of those criteria out of the window and start thinking with your heart you almost inevitably end up at the MP.
The MP-6 is the perfect mix for me though, rare enough to be cool, without being rare enough to cost me one of my internal organs. It can be used without the batteries which is perfect. And as I have mine fitted with the black paint 35mm Summicron ASPH lens and the Leicavit, it is also heavy enough to use as a hammer to build my coconut palm shack (I am not joking, it is really heavy).
True, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of a more modern camera, but I like to keep things simple and I know that this camera would continue to work long after I am a sun-pickled lunatic wearing a coconut bra.
And those are our picks. Pretty amazing machines, all of them. But what do you think? Was your favorite Leica passed over? Let us hear about it in the comments.
Many thanks to Bellamy for contributing to this post. If you’re pining for a very special Leica to shoot or collect, pay him a visit. He’s a master at finding the best in the world.
And stay tuned for upcoming editions of Desert Island Cameras – we’ve got more special guests on the way.
Want a Leica we didn’t pick?
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]